Who Wins If Fewer Foreign Grad Students Come to U.S.?

What will happen to U.S. universities if the flood of foreign graduate students becomes a trickle? And if they stopped coming, would it mean that other nations can now match the quality of U.S. institutions, which provides the basis for U.S. preeminence in science?

The new director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Subra Suresh, took a shot at answering those questions today in a presentation to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). And while Suresh admits his informal survey of mobility patterns in his native India is not up to the rigorous standards that NSF would demand of its grantees, he says the results suggest "the beginning of a potentially rapid shift" of talent, with a possible "huge" impact on the U.S. scientific enterprise.

"I received my first degree from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in 1977," Suresh told PCAST in his first appearance before the 24-member White House advisory body. "And in my graduating class, covering all types of engineering, there were 250 students. More than 80% of them had the opportunity to come to the United States to pursue graduate studies, and practically all of them took [that opportunity]. They came here, and they stayed, and all of them became U.S. citizens or permanent residents, playing a significant role in research, academia, industry, and business."

Fast forward 3 decades, he said, and the picture has changed dramatically. "I was in India just 4 days ago and was able to update my data," he said. "Each of the IIT campuses still graduates about 250 students. And more than 80% of last year's graduates had the same opportunity to come to the United States. But this time, only 16% of them took it. And it was not the top 16%."

Suresh was coy about predicting what those numbers might mean for U.S. science, however. "It's just one campus, and one data point," he said. But he went so far as to say that "it points to a potential trend."

The ensuing question-and-answer session illustrated the danger of making any snap judgments. "Where did the rest go?" wondered PCAST member Craig Mundie, head of research for Microsoft. Mundie noted that Indian universities lack the capacity to absorb all of them and suggested that most would have to go abroad to further their education.

Suresh's answer revealed that student mobility is a complicated phenomenon and that the host country's loss of scientific talent is not necessarily a gain for the home nation. "Most of the top students from these institutions seek jobs within India or with major international corporations, which is good for India and for the economy," he said. "Many of them do not stay in science or engineering."

"I'm told that, unlike 30 years ago, when the top students would automatically go into science and engineering, that doesn't happen anymore," Suresh continued. "Whether it's good or bad is a judgment call. But that's the fact. We are losing them [from] science and engineering."

Mundie pushed for details. "So they don't go to graduate school, either?" Replied Suresh: "They eventually get an MBA somewhere."